WHEN engineer Shamini Shanmuganathan returned to work after an extended maternity leave, she found out that her company was retrenching her. While it was a hard blow, she realised that it freed her from a job she had lost passion for and gave her an opportunity to pursue something she enjoyed – playing with children.
“I hadn’t felt motivated or passionate about what I had been doing for a very long time. I thought, maybe the retrenchment was a sign that I needed to do something I enjoyed,” explained Shamini, whose sons are now aged five and 10 months.
She had the idea of packing toys, games and other items for sensory play and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) activities in her car to bring to people’s homes where she would organise a playgroup for two to four children.
She then set up Curious Dragon, a mobile playgroup which brings play to your doorstep. All the games and activities have already been tried and tested on her elder son. If she finds that he doesn’t like it, she tweaks the activity. She prepares all the items at home and makes sure they are safe for small children to play with.
While everything done in the mobile playgroup now is from her experience of playing with her own children, Shamini hopes to back this up with academic qualifications some time in the near future. She hopes to pursue her master’s degree in early childhood education.
Curious Dragon was set up this year and it has gained some interest from parents. During the last school holidays, she had a playgroup for three children aged five, four and two. While the children didn’t know each other initially, they soon became fast friends.
There were different themes each day. When the theme was space, the children learnt to make jetpacks. There was also an astronaut training obstacle course. The children made rockets using M&M tubes and a Panadol soluble pill. The emphasis is on sensory play.
“I work on fine motor and gross motor skills, but it’s not structured. The purpose is for the children to play and have fun. I also have free play which can get quite messy. We might play with mud, have a washing station, and a farm station. There might be a sandpit with dinosaurs in it. We might also have cotton ball painting where they dip cotton balls in paint and throw it at a canvas on the gate. The purpose is to engage their senses when they play,” she adds.
There is also an ocean theme where the children might be asked to sort the ocean animals. They learn to make slime and enjoy playing with it. They also learn to inflate balloons using baking soda and vinegar.
If the child is on landed property, the playgroup activities can be done in the garden. If not, it will have to be in the balcony. Shamini brings everything she needs for the playgroup; this includes a piece of tarpaulin to line the area and contain the mess.
“I would rather go to the child’s house because I think children respond better in an environment that they are familiar with. Some children take a long time to warm up to strangers. If they are at home with adults they know, they adapt easier and faster. When I go to the child’s house, there should be at home with him an adult whom he is familiar with. If the child is below two and is not potty-trained, then I would rather the adult be with us throughout the session,” said Shamini.
For now, Curious Dragon’s playgroup sessions are 1½ hours long because children tend to have a short attention span. Shamini informs that this is not an academic lesson and won’t include learning letters and numbers.
“The children really enjoy the sensory bin and the experiments. Parents sometimes think their children are too young to appreciate this but they enjoy just adding one ingredient to another and seeing the reaction, especially if it’s bubbling. Even if they don’t really understand why it happens, they like to see the cause and effect in the experiments. It excites them and they make me repeat the experiment four or five times! I enjoy doing it again and again because I’m happy to see them excited about things like that.
“At this playgroup, the children are at least away from gadgets for those few hours. We always start with the sensory bin. It’s easier to engage them then because initially they might be unsure of me or they might be shy. This way, when they are playing, they open up and start to talk. Then I teach them to clean up, followed by movements or we sing songs. Then we try to do a learning activity but in a playful way. After that we move on to a science experiment. I end it with a storytelling session,” said Shamini, who admits to getting her ideas from Pinterest.
Curious Dragon can be found on Instagram @curiousdragon.